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Travelogue: Japan, Seen Through Indian Eyes

Day 1/ Tokyo arrives!

The British Isles.

Is what I am reminded of, taking in the swathes of lush green as I peer out the descending plane window this grey spring morning. In geography, Japan is like the UK; a cluster of islands off the mainland. The unpredictable sprayish rain and the chilly gale-force winds are traits common to both (as I will experience). But this is where any comparison should end, for Japan is unique, and the Japanese without parallel.

We, a gang of five, have made our online hotel bookings after much deliberation. Prior visitors and residents have been fleetingly consulted. This is the sum of our collective planning although we are going armed with a guidebook between us. Our interests range from soaking up the city, to absorbing the natural splendour, to gaining an insight into the country’s history and temples. In passion for food, luckily, our zests converge. 

The airport can be one anywhere, in Bangkok or HK or Singapore. It takes us a while to obtain our weekly rail passes in exchange for the vouchers we’d purchased in Delhi, but before long we’re on the Narita Express headed to Tokyo. Sadly this is not one of the Shinkasen bullet-trains I was hoping it would be.

For the first half-hour the train passes through dense bamboo groves and grass pastures interspersed by quaint-looking villages; few people can be seen. This could be the European countryside. But soon the view changes from green to cement as we edge into the Tokyo sprawl. An enormous car-park comes into view. Each car is neatly stationed within the designated lines, not a tyre is over or askew. Whenever I make visits outside India, sightings of this type have a transiently unsettling effect on my desi sensibilities: a reminder that I must now comply by rules rather than find ways to bend them, most of the time unwittingly, as I am so used to doing back home. Japan is going to put me on a new kind of learning curve. I look forward to it.

We get off at Tokyo Station. A woman waylays us at the platform and asks, “are you all from India?” “Yes”, we reply.

“I hope you have a great time. I went to India last year and had a wonderful stay.”

We smile and trundle on. After changing another train, lugging our suitcases all the while, we find a cab to our hotel. I note that Tokyo cab doors are controlled by the driver; only he can let you in and out, unlike Delhi autos, from which you are at liberty to leap out whenever you wish. 

Our hotel is central and looks cozy. It’s owned by an old lady who speaks decent English. My room is done up in the traditional style, a Ryokan such are called. The floor is tatami-matted and there is no bed; instead there is a thick mattress spread out on the floor. Beside lies a low table on which sachets of green-tea have been fanned out. Tanaka, the hotel bellboy, requests I take my shoes off before stepping on the floor. As he exits, I say, “arigato”, the only Japanese word I know. I also know that in Japan you’re not expected to tip. In response, he says “dhanyawaad”. I wonder if I’ve heard rightly. I say, “sorry, what?” Tanaka says he’d holidayed in India fifteen years ago. Three hours spent in Japan and I’ve already met two Indophiles! A good omen. Before exiting, Tanaka bows, so I reciprocate the motion clumsily. Witnessing a peculiarly eastern warmth combine with the sort of efficiency I’ve only ever associated with the west feels both exhilarating and alien.

I enter the bathroom and I am utterly flummoxed by what I find. The Japanese WC is without a doubt the most hi-tech variety that I’ve ever come across. (And they are widespread.) I am nervous to defile this state of the art product. Five or Six buttons, symbols in Japanese, are attached at the side of the commode. A bidet, a spray, a temperature controller for the seat, even a blow drier for your bum! How meticulously thought through. How unbelievably bizarre. I needn’t use my hands at all. The 5 stars back home should emulate this design for all that they charge. 

Post-nap, I head to Shibuya in downtown Tokyo. The first thing I notice, other than the standard world-city pulse where hordes rush about in every direction, is the ubiquitously black-suited men- no grey, nor blue- and the white-masked men-and-women pacing resolutely. In surgical masks. Everywhere. It’s the closest I’ve felt to being inside the Matrix. (I’m glad it happens to be one of my favourite films.) I wonder what these people would do if they were made to breathe the Delhi air. 

Shibuya is something like a Times Square meets Leicester Square, in Japan. Massive neon lights flashing Japanese letters, wide monitor-screens blaring pop songs, department stores selling branded clothes made in China and India, youths striding about accessorized and blonde-haired, girls in tall and fashionable heels. Gleaming buildings and cars. Pedestrian-thronged road crossings. Cafes and restaurants. It matches my mental image of the city. What I didn’t anticipate though was the apparent dearth of non-Japanese looking people. Most people look Japanese, speak Japanese. Many may well be East Asians from other parts but I’m incompetent to discern. (Later I learn that Japan does receive a steady stream of tourists from China and Korea.)

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We come upon a Sushi bar. My friend is having a craving and I decide to accompany her. (This is the part I fear. Suffice it to say raw fish will never be my prime choice. But I must give this a go seeing as I am actually in Japan; who visits Japan and does not try sushi, right?) Sushi seems to be something like The Samosa of this country, the snack Tokyo-ites have on the go as and when they get the munchies. The bartender speaks nought English, so we point at our choice on the menu card, which thoughtfully has pictures, as do most eateries. He goes, “Hai” in an animated way to say ‘yes’. (Something I will continually see for the remainder of the week.) I am observing closely so as to enable myself to speak the same way.  I choose the torched salmon topped with mayo, the least raw option. I dunk it in wasabi and another sauce to singe out any scaliness. It’s delicious. My friend asks for the tuna and mackerel sushi. It looks positively forbidding but she devours it in a bite. I try another and decide that that will be my last. I then gulp down a gallon of green tea, which, as I’m looking around, is also appearing to be something of a national obsession. Contented, we dawdle on imbibing our surroundings.

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A little later we get on the train to Roppongi. The subway is packed tight, but even so it is silent and organised; the London tubes seem like Mumbai-locals in comparison. Roppongi is the district that western expats and some young Tokyo-ites frequent. There is a range of hip bars and clubs to choose from and all manner of pleasures to be had. I feel as though I’m in a seedy Bangkok street. A friend is curious to have a peek inside one of the infamous school-girl fetish bars, supposedly only for a minute. I can see only local men about. The bouncer denies him entry asserting that the venue is meant for “Japanese only”. He looks aggrieved but the girls in our group give a hearty, if relieved laugh. Of them one is his wife. 

Ultimately we wind up in a grotty bar on one of the side streets full of local youngsters.  Patrons are huddled in groups on the tatami-matted floor around giant pots of boiling udon and meat placed at the centre. I’m impressed by the deftness with which these twenty-somethings are conveying meat held between chopsticks to their bowls, stirring in dark condiments and sauces. The din is vibrant and youthful. The bartender cannot understand a lick of English. We concur that this is a fitting place to have our first “sake”-Japanese rice wine-of the day, which we then proceed to consume in copious quantities. 

By the end of the evening we’re merry and exhausted. (One of our drunken games included ordering whichever dish our random fingers fell at on the alien menu. So we ended up sampling raw horse slivers!) As we make to leave at about 1 am, I ask the waitress how to say “we had a great night” in Japanese. She can’t understand but assumes I’m complaining and commences apologizing, her hands folded, bowing over. I do the same for the second time today looking even sillier this time as I am drunk and apologizing in Japanese.

On our way to the station we stroll past an inebriated teenager sitting by the pavement releasing a stream of crass-sounding burps into the otherwise-germfree-night-air.

Maybe Japan is not that alien to us after all.

Day 2/ Exploring Tokyo

I awake at 9 am after a sound night’s sleep. Today is crisp and sunny, yesterday’s gloom long gone. I can see cherry blossoms at a distance from my window.

We’re in time for our hotel’s free breakfast. Which is sticky rice served with miso soup, pickle, and a soft boiled egg. I eat the egg and have some soup but can’t bring myself to eat rice this early. I need bread. I grab a coffee from Starbucks while my friend wolfs down a McDonalds cheeseburger citing their unavailability back home as his reason. I promise myself I will not be eating fastfood over here, of all things.

We hop on the subway to Asakusa, a district in north-eastern Tokyo. It is a heavily touristed area, being home to the Sensoji Temple and other attractions. Groups of uniformed school children are out on a day trip. They’re slurping green-tea ice-creams and doing the “V”-finger pose for photographs. I smell miso soup and coffee trailed by wafts of perfume and flowers.

The backdrop is steel and glass buildings reaching into the blue while the forefront reveals pedestrians, cars, and, lo and behold, a hand rickshaw puller! I did not expect to see this here. Mamata Didi would be pleased. We saunter into a pretty stretch of cherry-blossom trees– or “sakura” as they say here– adjacent to the river. The sakura has the effect of a white net filtering sunlight, an incandescent veil casting mottled shadows on the promenade below. Families are out picknicking, frolicking, opening lunch boxes of sushi, soups, and noodles; rice and pickles galore. After clicking plentiful photos of ourselves against a variety of dappled settings- an activity the­­ locals are just as feverishly enjoying- we decide to find a restaurant.

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It will be our first proper meal together. We come by one that has a queue flowing onto the pavement; must be good. Inside we’re made to take off our shoes and sit on low-lying wooden slats precisely laid on tatami mats. Most of the diners present are locals. The waitresses are wearing traditional kimonos. I’m starving. The food consists of two bento box meals, miso soup, fried tempura, an assortment of sea food, along with sake to wash everything down. It’s immensely satisfying. I love their pickles and sauces. And rice is always tasty for lunch, unlike in the morning.

We next stop at an ice-cream parlour on our way to Sensoji. I ought to try this green-tea ice cream that seems to be the rage here. The parlour woman tells me to eat right there and not walk about cone-in-hand. “It make mess” I think were her words. The flavour secretes a bitter aftertaste and whatever refinement it possesses is wasted on my Punjabi senses. My mates extract a feeble nibble but expectedly leave the bulk for me to finish. I can’t spot a bin into which I can surreptitiously chuck this mossy desert. This is awkward. I’m almost done, and now I glimpse a band of Japanese school girls approaching. “Hi” they trill, in chorus. The scene is so archetypical that I’m mildly bemused and giggling. They tell us that they’d like to take our picture, so we all huddle together like odd specimens as they, smiley and ebullient, whip out their smartphones. We’re mistaken however, for they want to pose with us. Ha! I thought only Indians fascinated by blondes and red-heads did this sort of thing. Seems not.

The Sensoji Temple is Tokyo’s oldest. The shrine is thronged, by Japanese standards, but everything is orderly, again by Japanese standards. At the anterior a cluster of incense-sticks- reminiscent of the Indian agarbati – is smouldering under a canopy; devotees are taking in the essence exactly as they would in India during a temple aarti. Further on lies a large rectangular container, raftered at the top, into which people are showering coins. I follow suit. The inner-sanctum within which the idols are placed, the colossal bronze Buddha sat splendid and centre-stage, is sectioned off firmly by a metal net. Do they have Japanese priests for these temples I wonder. All about palms meet in the familiar namaste posture. These deities could just as comfortably inhabit an Indian temple. What is surreal is the squeaky cleanliness, the silence and calm. I could lick the floor. On exiting the main shrine a large stone tablet comes into view. It is unclear which period it belongs to as the explanation is only in Japanese, but it’s curious that the slab bears an inscription that is recognizably of Sanskritic origin as opposed to the Sino-Japanese symbols we see around.

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After meandering back to the station, we submerge ourselves in the subway-system like the oldtimers we now consider ourselves, and surface at Shinjuku. If Shibuya was all lights, shops, restaurants, and people in masks, Shinjuku is the commercial centre chock-full of towering office buildings, lights, and, for sure, people in masks. The train station here is so capacious that it looks like a town in itself. We wander, explore. My friend inhales a couple of cheese burgers along the way while I appreciate the parasols fashioned like samurai swords up on sale. This is just the sort of gimmick aimed at gulling impressionable tourists as myself.

We then stop at a snazzy café. Before coming here I was educated that Japanese chefs, in keeping with their nation’s unspoken codebook, are perfectionists at European cuisines, especially gourmet and Italian. Which is a justified observation perhaps as all the savouries we try are excellent. Outside a crowd of teenagers is shrieking the street down at seeing a singer’s performance being exhibited on a wide plasma-screen. This is the loudest display of emotion I’ve seen here yet.

Our next port of call is Harujuku, the youth culture and fashion centre. I sight many hip cafes, hipper clothing and accessory stores, and the hippest dressed Tokyo-ites, all in the same place. If I were to draw an analogy with London I’d say this place looks like Islington overrun by the Japanese version of the Camden Town crowd. It’s a pity staring is considered rude in most cultures, other than mine.  (On the topic of fashion and youth, it is appearing that anything ostensibly ‘western’ is de rigueur in this city, though this is not to say that the Japanese have failed to tenaciously preserving their own traditions.)

A couple of hours later the group is enervated. A consensus is reached on finding a suitable joint where food can be relished, alcohol imbibed and our legs rested. We walk into an restaurant specializing in meats and sauces. As we’re sat cross-legged on tatami mats a boiler is placed at our nub. The waiter slides in slivers of assorted raw meats along with cabbage, bean-sprout, mushroom and tofu. This dish is called shabu-shabu. (Which I later learn is an onomatopoeic term for the effervescent boil in which the meats cook). We’re then served a selection of red powders as well as yellow and brown sauces to slather on the cuts. It’s delicious. The waiter is affable and eager to assist even though he can barely comprehend us. I ask what exactly okonomoyaki is, for I was suggested I try it. His vocabulary falls short so he Googles it on his smartphone showing me it. He suggests we try “prrrum saaor”. “Sure”, we answer. The plum sour drink is fine indeed.

 Day 3/ Kamakura and Tokyo

We were meant to wake up early in order to be in time for the auction at the Tsukiji fish market but the chance of that happening was looking increasingly remote when we were all sake’d out late last night.  It is settled, we will spend today solo. I decide to choose between a trip to Mt. Fuji and the bordering town, Kamakura. I seek out Tanaka for his advice seeing as we’ve struck a superficial bond. In his polite style he asks, “What are your interests?” With my characteristic Indian vagueness I reply, “anything”. (Or did I say “everything”?)  Tanaka does not appreciate this. All the same he recommends I visit Kamakura. 

I pause for a quick bite at a miso soup eatery. I am standing between two men who are making it a point to noisily suck up their noodles. Both are in expensive suits. (Slurping noodles and soup audibly and forcefully was an act I witnessed on so many occasions that I was convinced the Japanese treat it an art, not dissimilar to how many Indians delight in drinking chai with an emphatic sucking hiss.)

I’m at the station. I spot my train; it is the noon double-decker. I proceed to make myself comfortable in a mostly unoccupied carriage. There’s a smart hostess doing the rounds, she’s bowing a lot. Her bearing is ingratiating to the point of appearing caricatural. I lay back, relax.

She comes by me, taps on my shoulder and asks, “Sir, can I see your ticket please?” I abide by the request. Letting out an “ah” sound, she informs me that I must pay the fare for First Class or move to ‘Economy’ for which my ticket is valid. I’m ushered to the door of the plebs carriage, where I receive my final bow before the hostess turns around and stalks off. On entering, I realise to my displeasure that ‘Economy class is a replica of the inner-city subway carriage, and equally packed. All the seats are taken and I will have to travel standing. Brilliant.  

Before long I understand the cause for this congestion. This train goes via Yokohama, a large city adjoining Tokyo. In fact the two over time have flooded into each other so much so that Yokohama is considered to form part of the Greater Tokyo Area. Kamakura lies just beyond. The view throughout the journey is urban concrete save for the flashes of Sakura that fly past. Half the men on board are reading Japanese comic books, their earphones plugged in and expressions deadpan.

On getting off, I note right away that Kamakura is a touristy town. There is a long queue at the station’s information desk, and the lady behind the counter speaks the best English I’ve encountered so far. I’m advised to visit the two largest temples and then attempt the other sites if left with time. As instructed I get on the bus. I’m the only foreigner aboard and I am hoping I’m going on the right route. I ask the driver if the bus stops at the ‘big temple’ but he emits a vacant stare. I then read out the name written on my map and a prompt “Hai” comes the response. (What I like about the Japanese language is that it’s not so hard to pronounce, unlike Chinese which is spoken in seemingly indistinguishable, and innumerable, tonal gradations.) A sweet-looking lady–one among the several elderly people aboard–gestures where I should get off. I try a little bow which probably looks more like an elongated nod. Heh. 

The Kotuku-in temple compound is blooming with sakura. At the entrance there is a petite reservoir, wooden ladles floating atop, where visitors are washing their hands and rinsing their mouths. I continue along the path and moments later find myself in an open esplanade at the centre of which, ensconced between emerald hillocks, a magnificent outdoor bronze Buddha is beaming large. A Daibutsu dating from the 13th century. The spectacle is sublime and rather than click away, I stand there enthralled a few seconds. 

Stirred, I walk into the souvenir shop shelved with books dedicated to Buddha’s life. I will not deny that I feel a throb of contentment at seeing the mention of India’s name as the birthplace of the Buddha, and Buddhism.

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I now need to find my way to the next destination. A local girl informs me that the other temple is a mere 10 minute walk away. No farther than a few feet on I spot a Samurai sword shop, its doors papery and slidable. The interior’s floor is tatami-matted whilst the walls adorn sophisticated paintings and calligraphy scrolls. The owner fits with the ambience for he is in traditional garb, speaks only Japanese and is very old and humble. Everything is appealing, everything is exorbitantly priced. I briefly imagine myself as a Kill Bill movie character, I then permanently bow out of the store. 

A few doors down Ganesh-print bags are exhibited conspicuously. This store must be owned by a fellow desi. I pop inside to ask for directions whilst simultaneously adjudging all buyers of such knickknacks, past and future, here in Japan, as remarkably naive. The shopkeeper is from Bihar. He’s lived here 4 years, speaks no Japanese and is keen to return to India.

The second temple, whilst just as dazzling as the previous one, is altogether distinct in conception and design. The gardens are stepped, superbly landscaped, and studded with a range of idols over which hang cherry-blossoms. I see the mythical bird Garuda, the mount of Lord Vishnu in Hinduism in addition to being an important symbol in Japanese Buddhism. Disappointingly, I cannot record the scene within the Buddha sanctum, photography is prohibited.  Over here the devotees are immersed in prayer, here the Buddha is made of gold.

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I am curious to learn how deeply the lives of ordinary folk are governed by religion, and as luck would have it an answer is forthcoming. As I am exiting the complex a local asks to take my interview. I acquiesce. Hiroko is an assistant film-maker presently working on a film about the history of Buddhism in this country. I warn him on being pressed for time so he proposes that he accompany me on the walk to the train station. Hiroko laments the decline in the role of Buddhism in modern Japan, he says people are only concerned about prosperity. “That is not so bad”, I say. He should come to India to see how excessive religious belief can also have damaging effects. I enunciate slowly on cue. Hiroko regales me with another interesting factoid: apparently Japanese has very few consonants and speakers often can’t pronounce, or get mixed up between the “b”, “v”, & “l” sounds in English to name a few. The Japanese find English a really hard language. They also think it sounds ‘hard’, I think he means ‘harsh’.

By now I feel comfortable to ask him what has been on my mind for three days. I ask, “why do so many people wear masks?”

His answer: “Because hay fever. And because pollution come from China”.

I blurt out, “you can’t be serious”. But Hiroko is dead serious.

At the platform, Hiroko bows lengthily and does not leave until my train departs. 

A couple of hours later I reunite with my friends at Shibuya and we repeat our daily ritual of great food and sake. Our dinner consists of countless rounds of yakitori, which is essentially Japanese skewers and kebabs: chicken on sticks, mince meat lollipops, courgette wrapped in bacon, prawns, chicken stuffed with cheese, and our favourite, chicken liver. It’s all scrumptious.

 Day 4/ Sayonara Tokyo, Konichiwa Kyoto!

We learned yesterday that the Tsukiji tuna-auction begins at 6 am but due to complaints of tourists obstructing the market’s pace authorities now only let in lots of 20 visitors at a time. It is the world’s biggest fish and sea-food market. Access is granted strictly on a first come-first serve basis, and thus keen visitors need to start lining up already from 1 am. Seeing as last night’s carousal went on till 2 in the morning not one of us felt disposed to forgo our sleep for a raucous dawn.

So, inured to the Indian Stretchable Time, we arrive at Tsukiji at about 9.30 am. We cross rows upon rows of food stalls beside the pavement. The Japanese omelette, yellow and fluffy, moist textured and sweet, seems to be a local favourite, as are soupy udon noodles and mince-meat on sticks. Rice topped with seaweed and pickle and fried chicken-wings smothered in aromatic and darkly-hued sauces look enticing also. The air is delectably cool, the sky richly sunlit. As we near the market-fringe the food stalls switch, unadulteratedly, to becoming harbingers of the aquatic bazaar ahead. We sample an assortment of squid and other squid-like animals, inducing in me a sharp regret at not having tried the tasty poultry-based delicacies we’d just walked past. I ask the stall-owner if there’s an accompanying sauce. “No, it has many taste”, she says. I disagree. My tongue writhes down this tough prehistoric creature, and as soon as I’m through I find myself longing for something, erm, more refined.  I sight a stall selling something called a ‘curry puff’. It has a vaguely familiar quality. I’m certain it contains turmeric in addition to a watered down masala of sorts; I tuck in heartily.

By the time we reach the actual market it’s past 11. The hustle & bustle has effectively died down. I roam through the warren of lanes flanked by every conceivable form of sea life, a lot of which is colourfully alien-esque. Gigantic live crabs, dried squid, enormous fish and interminable supplies of tuna can be seen. I am searching, perhaps irrationally, for a whale, but it’s either been hacked to bits or is completely absent. It’s obvious to us though that the bulk of sales have long concluded as at present vendors are busily winding up.

Maybe we feel so since we’ve been to such markets in Mumbai and Calcutta, or because we arrived late missing the real action, but whatever the cause we’re uniformly of the opinion that this is a rather lacklustre outing. There is novelty for us yet in the myriad species of marine fauna on display.

We follow the visit by the customary round of sushi, which customarily implies I am in a sulk, even if not so outwardly.  I overhear an American tourist at the door saying, “I’m not really a Sushi fan..”. I hear you, brother. Afterwards, at a stall I sate my muted cravings by loudly sucking up the soupy udon and fried chicken that I was previously lusting after. My friends sneer at my unevolved choice but at least everybody is now contented.

As we each have a different agenda but only 6 hours left before our train to Kyoto, we decide to split up. Two of us want to visit Ueno, the site of Tokyo’s largest park and the National Museum.

I ask a guy behind a coffee-shop counter for directions. His English skills are useless yet he’s making his best efforts to explain. Quickly customers waiting in line join in the conversation and now there are 4 individuals arguing about what might be my best route. Except that none of their prattle makes any sense and so I’m served a scale of hectic and solicitous gesticulations. Needless to say I leave after nodding understandingly but actually none the wiser. It’s a good thing the road signs in this area are more to the point. (It was my experience that like many Indians rarely do the Japanese say ‘no’ or “I don’t know”, rather they’re keen to show helpfulness.)

The two of us amble through Ueno Park, which, tracing back to my port of analogy, is fair to equate with Hyde Park of London. At this time of year though, the foliage is unique in that the sakura whitely blankets the sky along the main boulevard. This is the highest concentration of cherry blossoms I’ve seen yet. Everybody is out on picnics and walks, posing beside sakura, boating-, V-posing-, and clicking-away. I’m surprised to see the park swarming with families, couples, and students on this weekday afternoon. Perhaps I shouldn’t be. They say that the sakuras are in full bloom for only a couple of weeks and that whilst this period lasts one and all wish to bask in its ephemeral flower.

The National Museum building’s exterior design is traditional what with its triangular arches and sloping gabled roof. We study the layout of exhibits. Arrayed within are samurai and katana swords, Buddha and Shinto idols, paintings, ceramics, kimonos and other ensembles, in addition to a host of artefacts from various ages reaching as far back as pre-antiquity when Japan was first peopled by the indigenous Ainu, who today are a discriminated against minority. I could spend the rest of the day here.

I am fascinated by the exhibition of archaic sake-flasks, by the precursors to the kimono, the swords and bows-&-arrows of various periods-the researchers of The Last Samurai would have spent ages here!- but I spend the maximum time in the Buddhist idols, and the paintings section. The striking similarity with modern Hinduism both astonish and intrigue; there are Japanese counterparts-actually no, versions-of the Indian gods Indra, Agni, Surya, Chandra, Varuna, Yama and many more. The visage of many of the idols is unquestionably Hindu yet others look more Chinese influenced. I see a multi-armed deity crushing a demon underfoot, the tongue hanging out like Kali’s. Below these statues the labels display names in Sanskrit as well as in Japanese.

Among the paintings my eyes are fixed to a stunning piece from the Edo period. It depicts geishas in their finest spring finery out on a stroll appreciating the sakura. The explanation beneath states this is an artistic portrayal of a time when sakura trees were planted specifically for the spring season, shortly after which they were wholly removed so that it later seemed as though the blooming spell was but a passing dream; much like the geisha’s youth itself.

We reach the station well in time for our 6 pm train to Kyoto. I’m happy to see that we will be travelling by a Shinkasen this time. Throughout the journey we endeavour to converse in hushed tones; a failed attempt for our voices remain the only audible ones in the carriage. Others are typing on their phones or reading comics or quietly eating. (The art of slurping udon is subject to train-travel decorum I surmise.) An elderly lady comes over and takes the seat beside another elderly lady. They greet one another with mini-bows.

It is 9 pm and we’re on the cab to our hotel. Kyoto looks palpably more relaxed, its buildings obviously less vertical. There are fewer men strutting about in suits and a greater number of kimono-garbed women walking the street.

Day 5/ Kyoto

If Tokyo is the world-city in Japan, Kyoto is looking more like the world-of-Japan in a city. And as it happens, the beat of this cultural heart is there to avail a few short feet from our hotel’s doorstep in the trendy and glowingly crimson avenue of Gion. I recall spotting a geisha as our cab went by the main boulevard last night. Ornately dressed, face caked in make-up, hair pinned back.

We each make the decision to take off by ourselves for the first half of today. My first destination will be the Kinkaku-Ji or the “Temple of the Golden Pavillion”. It is famous for its landscaped gardens as much as for its glimmering shrine.

After a speedy 10 o’clock coffee and sandwich, I shortly wander through Gion, from here I ­need to take Bus #12. The street is lined on either side by chic glass-fronted stores prominently displaying a variety of attractive items; red and golden kimonos and calligraphy-embellished chopsticks alongside elegant ceramics and hand-fans that blossom into outstretched sakuras. The prices however are unstretchable and high.

I shuffle back to the bus-stop and quietly sit down. An elderly gentleman is manning this space, directing tourists, making genial banter. It looks as though he’s eager to show-off his skills except that the locals standing by are looking ahead impassively. He asks where I’m from, but before I can reply I hear, “Spain?” Hah! I’m not the only one who mixes up the nationalities of people belonging to ethnicities distinct to mine. I correct him, chuckling. He mimes the namaste and says, “Gandhi, Gandhi”. (I wonder how much he knows about the newer breed by that same name.)

On the bus I take a seat at the rear end between a young couple and a gaggle of unusually noisy women. The girl is wearing a gilded kimono and I’m tempted to sneakily take her picture but I desist, for by now I’ve learned a thing or two about local etiquette. Moments later, over my head is being loudly bandied a dialogue between the couple and women, in Chinese. It’s good that I didn’t take that picture. Pictures often do lie! Their hubbub scratches through the melodious whispers of the locals. It’s a half-hour journey and I determine to no longer subject myself to caterwauling in this otherwise tranquil bus. The thought of vacating my seat never enters my feet, obviously, I should add. The Malaysian Airlines crash is now being discussed; this is my opportunity. Shedding off all the newly acquired mores on propriety I cut in, “it’s really scary what happened”. I feel their eyes on me. I am the centre of attention. Following a brief pause the conversation carries on as before, except this time in broken English. Much better. The girl and her partner are honeymooners from Beijing on their first trip to Japan while the women are Malaysian.  A while in, I enquire of the couple as to how they communicate effectively in this country. They tell me that the Japanese characters are virtually the same as their Chinese counterparts from which they were originally derived, so they can broadly glean the meaning to most of the writing and scarcely need to converse. Very interesting. I am rather pleased at having turned a banal bus-ride into a learning experience.

As is the norm, over half the visitors to Kinkaku-Ji are locals. Many are kimono-clad, making the enveloping foliage and damp air all the more atmospheric. The outer perimeter is bland, unimpressive. I walk through the gates and it is at once clear why this temple needed no added dressing.  A two-tiered abode made all but exclusively of gold softly rests at the corner of a placid lake. Hanging overhead are clouds and moss-carpeted hills, whilst in the water below a yellow lambent languidly shivers through isles of bonsai bottle-green. The picture penetrates for its minimalism. The slanting roofs, lightly upcurved, glisten aloofly at the bog’s edge like a shimmering Garuda sleeping amid curly water-snakes. Only here, the leafy serpents rather than threaten, are acting both as the mythical bird’s guardians and nourishers. A fish ripples through the calm and everything goes hazy. I wait for my image to recompose but it has been irretrievably changed.

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I take a few pictures of the now acquainted Chinese-girl-in-a-kimono together with her husband. Along the path I buy a bottle of sake speckled with gold at the souvenir shop. Further uphill sits another smaller shrine at which point people are praying, lighting incense-sticks and wish-candles. The English translations, I’m certain, are the verbatim Google translates for they read as: “a got in marriage”, “traffic in safety” and “a sick heal”. I light a few.

In some time I reunite with my friends for a bento-box meal of tempura, rice with pickles, and the obligatory miso soup. (A purplish sea-animal bobs afloat in my soup. Chopsticks skirt round it.) As always everything is tasty.

Three of us are now headed to the Philosopher’s Path, an area well-known for sakura-viewing. The walk-way is an abandoned stretch of train track lined to both sides by the most sweeping sakura I will have seen on my trip. This trail is dotted with young Chinese newly-weds out on photo-shoots. I observe them practicing, perfecting, their amorous and wistful poses; they are just as dramatically filmi as the residents of their smaller neighbour to the south. Flocked also in droves are local girls dressed to the nines in, what look like, carefully picked floral-printed kimonos. The traditional garb donned by so many dreamily swanning about this swan-like passage imparts an inimitably Japanese spring aura bringing to mind the Edo period painting at the museum.

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The five of us are dawdling along a street split by a canal, running lengthwise through its middle, over which droop branches of electrically-illuminated cherry-blossoms. We waltz into a smart looking restaurant which, unsmartly, has no pictures on its menu. As with the temple’s wish-candles, the English version prescribes gems such as “three assortments”, “cut the tomato” and “a spinach with fishes”. The waiters are, as you might by now expect, cheerily boisterous, and so after stumbling through a few misunderstandings and several fits of laughter we’re served food that is just as dreamy as the day has been. Not to mention lots of sake.

Day 6/ Kyoto and Nara

The Kyoto Imperial Palace, the former seat of the Japanese emperor, is the first site on today’s to-visit list. Yesterday two of us had pre-booked the 10 a.m. slot of the mandatorily required guided tours to the palace’s interiors, the only means to access. Up until now we have successfully stayed away from organised visits of any sort, and while we’re intent this trend persist, by five days spent here it is clear there is a kind of harmonized systemization imbuing Japanese culture every degree as palpable as our own country’s is mired in chaos-worship. Waging battles against either psyche will yield little other than frustrated disappointments; it is much more practical to acculturate to the norm. We have no option but to suck up our reflexive complaining and go with the flow, unnoisily. Anyhow enough of this wittering, the Palace Tour is free to begin with! 

The royal estate dates from the Edo period and holds within its complex, among other buildings, the hall for ceremonies, the emperor’s residence, as well as those of high-ranking officers. The palace lost much of its position when the capital was moved to Tokyo in 1869 during the Meiji Restoration. 

We’re in time for our guide’s orientation talk. She is exquisitely-yet-obscurely soft-spoken, leaving her utterances’ construal to the imagination. All of the fifty or so visitors today are foreigners. I think the rest are as clueless as me on what is being said but they are nonetheless paying close attention. We’re escorted from one building to the next, all of which are imposing and regal-looking but not always visually arresting. Cylindrical pillars hatted by rectangular and sloping gabled roofs is the frequent aesthetic. The verdant and elegantly manicured gardens are eye-catching however; their very composition appears to have sprung from the aim to accentuate the plant your gaze falls on, as though it is the point from which the surrounding flora off-shoot. The variegated species of bonsai are the dwarves, sagely bearded, letting loose their charms on the wind blowing about this overcast morning. Uniformed ‘Imperial Household Agency’ Guards are at our assembly’s heels, keeping watch, shepherding us forward, ensuring that no person lingers at any juncture for longer than is necessary. Entry to buildings within this compound is prohibited, and we’re only allowed a view from the outside. Photos are not permitted from up-close either. (I find myself hypothesizing as to how the situation might have turned out today, were tours of such stricture enforced at Delhi’s Red Fort. Its inner walls would have remained unsullied by glitzy declarations of Rajesh’s undying love for Anju, and their like, that much is for certain. But equally it is a sureness that Delhi never operated like Kyoto, much less we Indians like the Japanese.)

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It is noon and two of us are on the train headed to the nearby town, Nara, described by the LonelyPlanet as “second only to Kyoto as a repository of Japan’s cultural legacy”. My main interest is the Todai-ji temple that houses the world’s largest bronze statue of the Buddha, Vairocana. My friend is likewise interested in this temple but also wants to visit a particular tea-room regarding which the guidebook makes a by-the-way reference, (as per me).

Following a lunch of pasta, we arrive at Todai-ji by around 1. The peripheral gardens are flourishing with apparently-wild-but-likely-attentively-planted sakura in the middle of which wild-but-definitely-docile deer are freely roaming. Children are feeding them biscuits, laughing as they’re chased, while others are bawling on being surrounded by a herd set on snatching food out of their fingers. Their parents are shooing these deer away. The pathway, gardens to either side, is lined with souvenir shops and hawkers selling roasted nuts and fruit. We pass a warning sign saying: “The deer of Nara park are wild animals. They can occasionally attack people. So please be careful.” The wind is sprinkled and fast-moving, the sky cloudy with slights of blue. I catch a whiff of horse-dung in the air. Actually, come to think of it, it’s probably a deer’s. 

A sign at the entrance informs us that the Temple was built at the behest of Emperor Shomu, who hoped to position Todai-ji as the head temple and the Vairocana Buddha (“Buddha that shines throughout the world like the Sun”) as the central Buddhist deity of the Kokunbunji system of provincial temples. The inauguration ceremony of the Great Buddha was held in 752 A.D., under the auspices of Bishop Ryoben, the founder of the Temple. Although the temple was burned twice in the fires of war, it is still home to many important cultural properties created at the time of its founding and during the Kamakura restoration period (1185-1333). 

The temple building is outstanding. Its roof- behemoth in size, pitched and rectangular in shape, the corners upcurled- is superimposed by a similar layer a storey higher; spiked atop this upper crown are a pair of glistening bull-like horns. Until recently it was the world’s largest wooden building. Inside is seated the Buddha, representing the Vairocana, flanked to either side by Bodhisattvas. Soaring up to a height of fifteen metres, it is one of Japan’s largest bronze statues of the Buddha. 

If the outdoor sculpture at Kamakura was entrancing, the one here has the power to stir the hardest cynics to rapture. My friend and I are riveted. I follow the prompts of prayer, light incense sticks, do a namaste. Photos through use of tripods are not permitted here, not that this affects me given that I am using but my phone camera. 

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A board in the compound states it was here that the Indian priest Bodhisena performed the eye-opening for Emperor Shōmu in 752. Bodhisena (704-760) was an Indian Buddhist monk and scholar who travelled to Japan and established the Kegon school of Buddhism.

Also visible in the complex is an Ashoka Pillar. Underneath it is stated that this monument was built at the time of the commemoration of the Thousand Priests Service on the occasion of Hana Matsuri (or Buddha’s birthday) in April, 1988. Further, “This monument is a replica of the top of the Asoka pillar in Sarnath, India, modelled after a holy lion, the symbol of Buddhist teachings. A time capsule which contains the names of the participants and the message for the future written by followers is buried under this monument. The time capsule will be opened in 2038, the 1500th anniversary of the introduction of Buddhism to Japan”. 

Spiritually fulfilled, we plod on through the park to our next stop, the traditional tea-room. It is drizzling, and owing either to the wonderfully distracting Sakura or our inability to make sense of maps, we are now lost. I have little interest in having green-tea and would rather prefer coffee but my friend is marching on. It is already past 5 and we should soon be returning to Kyoto. An argument sparks on whether we should be searching for this place at all. I am sure the tea-room will have closed by the time we locate it, which is itself highly unlikely. Minutes later my friend is struggling to understand directions dispensed in fluent Japanese by a lady selling fruit on the side of the road. As our three-way discussion is in progress-I, simmering at one end, the fruit-seller, hand-signalling at the other-a deer ambles into the picture and gnaws the map straight out of my friend’s hands. But no; she is not one to give in so easily. Within seconds the situation devolves into what can only be described as a tug-of-war between girl and gritty mammal. The fruit-seller and I are in hysterical fits of laughter, this time understanding each other flawlessly. Humour has a way of bubbling through barriers of language. Naturally, the map ends up in the deer’s gut and we end up sipping on a coffee and a beer as should have been our plan from the get-go.

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It is now 8 and we’re back in Kyoto. We will be joined for dinner by Tomoko, a friend of a friend, and a resident Kyoto-ite. Although we’re half-an-hour late for our meeting Tomoko grins disarmingly and assures us it’s not a problem. She has studied a while in Sweden and is our contemporary in age. “Do we like sushi?” she enquires. “I don’t like it much, can we have something else please?” I retort; but as soon as these words exit my mouth I internally reprove myself. Tomoko is unaffected. “How about miso soup and udon?” she proffers.  I am all smiles this time.

Tomoko is happy to be our interpreter for the evening, which is a good thing, as we’ve been waiting to give vent to the inscrutabilities that have been piling up in our minds. We don’t hold ourselves back and bombard her with questions: “What are the cultural rifts between today’s youth and the older generation?” “What is the relationship like with China and with Korea?” “What’s the difference between practicing Buddhists and Shintos?” “What’s with the masks?” (Tomoko tells us she wears one too. Oops.)  She graciously sails through our onslaught, gives us her considered response to each and all of our queries howsoever foolish or insensitive these maybe. “How did you cope with all the chaos when you visited India?” we ask in closing. Tomoko plainly says, “I just said “accha” and everyone smiled and assumed I was Indian. I really liked India.” 

Before we part ways Tomoko presents us a gift, rather than the other way around as would have been apposite. Later, we tear the packaging to find a handsome a box of sweets beneath which additionally lurk five pairs of chopsticks for each one of us.

Day 7/ Kyoto, Arashiyama and Narita

Today is our last day in Japan. 

While activity-packed these past six days have been no holiday is really enduring when you know you’ll soon be greeted by the brusque loo winds of Delhi, pun intended, in place of the breezy sakura blowing in your face this cool morning. Our plan is to spend the afternoon at the bamboo forest in the neighbouring town of Arashiyama. After this final sojourn we will need to catch the evening-train to Tokyo followed by another onward subway to Narita, where we’ll be spending the night before boarding the flight bound for Delhi tomorrow morning. 

But right now it is only 10 am and two of us are on our way to the Kyoto International Manga Museum. I am visiting for the lack of appealing alternatives, but perhaps also because I’ve capitulated too easily to persuasion. “Manga” is the catch-all term for Japanese graphic comic-books aimed at adults (as well as children), but in actuality, I will shortly learn, it is an even wider term applied to a Japanese art-form and subculture dating back to the 19th century which in its modern sense encompasses widespread branches having diverse interpretations in China, Hong Kong, and Korea not least in tiny spheres of Europe and North America. My only prior brush with this tradition has been snippets accessed by standing beside train commuters gripped in its thrall. (I’m not counting the deliriously gory animation depicted in Kill Bill (movie) or the one-off Samurai cartoon I caught as a kid once upon a vacuous Sunday morning. A memory which lingers more for putting off a greasy head-massage than the simulation itself.)

On the more proximate and drier subject of the museum however, I note that the façade is aptly school-like. Its layout plan apprises us of the interiors- a vast, multi-levelled library shelved with every shade of comic art spanning rich period-paintings to the macabre-yet-hugely-popular sadomasochistic sort. The dialogue contained within the works is unexceptionally in Japanese. (Well, what else would it be?) A portrait artist is perched at a corner on the ground-floor. My friend decides to get herself a personalised memento while I loiter inside to browse the books and murals on display. The museum is sparsely peopled and all those present look under 40. I move through its chambers uncomprehendingly and only slightly inquisitive. More than the exhibits themselves observing these manga enthusiasts immersed in this esoteric and black-and-white universe- their eyes vigorously fixated – is more definitely relieving my ennui. No sooner I’m mulling over my philistine tastes, vapidly riffling through pages, than I see my more urbane friend coming toward me. A glance at her drawing tells that the artist has lent both her eyes and skin an East Asian complexion. Her Indian face has been etched sensitively into the Japanese race so that the caricature transitorily charms, as might the striking resemblance in a person of foreign ethnicity with someone you know well of your own. 

We trod along scanning the aisles for the next half-hour until we reach the souvenir shop by the exit. I buy a throwaway cloth wall-hanging flaunting a samurai wielding a katana, his hair falling mysteriously over his eyes, and my friend purchases a thick coffee table book embroidered by a script whose good-looks are matched only by its unintelligibility, its volume by its price. 

It is past noon. Regrouped, the five of us are riding a crowded train to Arashiyama. The passengers are locals for the most part but there are quite a few foreigners also. Minutes within getting off it becomes apparent that this luxuriant town is a favourite among both sets of people. A prominent chunk of locals are promenading about in their weekend-best kimonos, posing and taking photos- an exercise I’ve come to view as usual. The women are pertly robed in designer scarlets and stunning florals while the men are more soberly attired but no less interestingly. I am shamelessly but furtively clicking their photos while pondering whether being traditionally garbed corresponds to a more traditional lifestyle as can sometimes be the case in my part of the world. As everyday-wear the kimono is more commonplace among the older generation, that is certain, although in Kyoto and surrounds many youngsters are seen wearing it, too. The difference is that the latter seem to don this robe on select occasions rather than as a matter of routine. More evidently, I note that the stylishly-clothed lot has taken pains to not deface themselves in surgical masks in contrast to the more numerous commonly dressed, but health-conscious, masked folk around. 

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The main lure of this location is the stroll through the glade pathway cutting through the bamboo forest. This walkway is considered so iconic in fact that its photo is shown on the cover of the Japan Lonely Planet guide. We walk past a temple and a Shinto graveyard. The graveyard is uncommon in that it demonstrates a confection of Christian and Buddhist aspects, or so I believe. On some graves- shaped as grey stone posts- incense sticks are infixed at the fronts whilst a series of flat stones are stacked upright at the sides of others, yet still others have bunches of yellow and blue flowers laid at the column-bases. A pagoda like structure stands tall in the middle.

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After stalling at the opening of the corridor cleaving into the stemmy density, reflecting, savouring, we trickle on into the obscurity. Along this shaded track, the bamboo clusters to both sides, all sides, and at every scene, are deepening inward, upward, wayward, so thickly and interminably that the sky is utterly eclipsed by a monsoon green save for the shards of bright that crackle in. Eyes gape up at the comet streaks piercing the cosmos like of tadpoles’ bounded by an pond. We hold to our poses a little longer, proceeding to take a range of photos, managing even, quite expertly so, to take a panoramic shot containing us all, ourselves, without any outside help: “a groupie”.

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Afterwards we leapfrog from the bamboo dimness to a landscaped garden on a hilltop overlooking the valley below. The view is soothing; the green-tea we’re served however is absolutely not. Boiled lichen conjures to mind as a description. Though yet again, something must be wrong with my tastes for all the locals are downing it in mugfulls, asking for seconds. Kids, too. There’s a miso soup eatery round the corner mercifully.

It is 10.30 pm and we are finally at Narita. Our journey was uneventful except for my friend making the faux pas of sounding the alarm at the Kyoto train station, mistaking the emergency button for the flush. It’s those spellbinding WCs again I tell you! Much to her, and our vicarious, chagrin, three guards swiftly appeared at the door ready to break it down and save her from calamity. 

The subway from Tokyo station to Narita was packed with foreigners on their way to the airport. I overheard a woman having a thick Transylvanian-sounding accent say, “this carriage is for beasts. Beasts!” She was visibly prickly- or “non-Japanese”- as if emphasizing the fact that our vacation had come to a rude end. Luckily we found a nice restaurant for our very last meal: a selection of succulent gyoza and yakitori accompanied by udon, rice, as well as the ultimate rounds of sake. 

The night’s sleep and the eight hour flight fast-forwarded, I am now in Indira Gandhi Airport, Delhi. As I exit, I am welcomed by a sweltering and heavy evening air suffused by cab drivers’ swear words.

In a few quick seconds the week in Japan feels like a faraway spring-dream, the sakura together with the branches holding them cleanly blown away. 

Summer is here.

The Angkor Wat

Cambodia: My Family And Other Temples

PART I  (A lightly edited version of this Part I was published on Youthkiawaaz.com. It can be read here)

“Sir, a taxee vee be de ad aaepo tomoro to pi you ub”, our prospective tour-guide said over the phone. “Da ca numba e 4-1-9-7. OK?”  

“ya, thanks, Johnney”, I said. “I’ll be on the look out.”

Scores of westerners and a handful of Asians came streaming into the petite airport arrivals section. As we snailed forward in the queue terminating at the immigration desk I was struck by a mural displayed on the far side of the hall: a scene of tug-of-war between two mythical factions, the rope taut and serpentine.

“That’s a painting of the Samudra Manthan, isn’t it?” I nudged my mother.

A pleased yes-nod.

A half hour later, passports-stamped and a total of eight bags trollied up, of which mine was but one, my mother, her sisters, my aunts, and I trundled out of the wood-pannelled oriental-palacelike building. 

“So where is your Johnney?” asked my aunt, shading her squinting eyes from the sharp noon light. 

“He should be around.” Although there was no sign he was.   

Wekkum! Wekkum to Anko!” I then heard a warm voice. A stout man of roughly my age was smiling and holding a placard bearing my name.

“Hi Johnney.” Haro, Haro! You cuddan fin da ca? It e der, in frun ov you!

“Huh. Where? You said the car number was 4197. This one is 4971.”

Bu e e same-same na!” Johnney beamed.   

An annual pilgrimage is a compulsion for my family. I should clarify—it is a compulsion for my mother’s side of the family, with my mother acting as the perennial and avid group-leader. I usually end up the compliant tag-along. But this year, I took charge and decided to take her together with my aunts to some place new and foreign.

Owing to my tepid but enduring interest in Indian mythology, the historical Khmer relics had been on my bucket list for a long time. “Enough with poojas and rituals”, I’d persuaded. “It’ll be a nice change to look at monuments purely for their aesthetic appeal”.  My mother, I knew, ever-keen to add a place of worship to her credentials, never least the one listed as the largest Hindu temple, wouldn’t turn down this opportunity. My aunts, too, though nowhere near as idolatrous as my mother, I had expected to be agreeable to coming along. I wasn’t let down.

Johnney slid the door open to van number 4971.

I chuckled as my aunt grinned in a manner that seemed to say, these guys are like us only. Same-same.

We had landed in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

***                          

              As a little boy I spent my Sunday mornings, much like how everybody else I knew spent theirs: at home, transfixed to what in my planet was universally regarded as the thing to watch on Sundays: the televised renditions of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. For one godly hour, shops shuttered down and road traffic hummed to a lull. Servants would gather all agog and grandparents’ features matured yet to wholesome glows.  

In those guileless and more imaginative years, before the unstoppable flood of Cable TV and 3D effects and other such happening things had begun to happen, the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata were considered The Most Happening Things of All Time. Even then, my six year old self had a sense he was in witness of something bigger than mere drama; for not only did these classics open portals to worlds at once surreal and too-real, they were also believed by those around me to be the very manuals to living life. Indeed, these were the primordial trees—bearded Banyan trees, I liked to imagine–laden with fruits of meaning.

For me, though, always it was about the Super-Powers.

The galaxy of god-powers, the curses liberally dished out by quick-tempered sages and the herby potions vied for by all were the sorts of things that drew me to that fabled fold. The Sudarshan Chakra—the disk that spun fiercely on Vishnu’s index finger–was the most exciting choice of weapon; the shapeshifters and the morphers, avatars of the ever-mounting wickednesses, frightened me more than anything. Half-chanting and half-mumbling half-memorized mantras, eyes closed, I’d perform the bow-and-arrow scenes of Ram and his brother Laxman fighting evil, praying I could in someway conjure to myself their talents. Only then would I be able to vanquish some bully I’d decided looked just like a Rakshasa.

Growing up, my sister and I imbibed from our mother a great many stories on the continually colliding constellations of Hindu avatars. Parables that bespoke the timeless pull and tug for primacy between the gods and their lesser divinities; stories that wove into me the skein of honourable battles and justifiable deceptions and petty conceits playing out between the Asuras, the demons, and the Devas—Deva, the Sanskrit word for deity, has the same Indo-European root as the Latin word for God, Deus—not to mention the tussles amongst the gods themselves.

Once, as a 10 year old, I breezed into the Shemaroo video rental store near our home in Bombay and asked to rent the Mahabharata series.

The salesman’s eyes widened. “Ya there are 94 episodes. Which one you want?”

“The one with the most magic!” I’d said.

So it was perhaps understandable when years later, as a Sci-Fi-obsessed adult, while watching the superhero movie, X-Men, I felt something in my mind ricochet: a memory cobwebbed to a stored-away alcove. Where before had I observed this same situation –in which two opposing forces had come together for a common objective before going their own separate ways? Was I imagining a link where none existed? But the echo lingered; it dogged and gnashed until it untangled and rose to clarity.

Yes, the same thing had occurred in the Samudra Manthan, or in “The Churning of the Ocean of Milk”. In that account the Devas and the Asuras had for once, for a time, joined hands in pursuit of a single quest: the obtainment from the deepest depths of the ocean, Amrit, ambrosia, or the nectar of immortality.

And it was this affair that I was to find depicted on its grandest, most intricate canvas in the architecture and imagery of the once Hindu and now Buddhist temples of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom.

***

                          “This place actually feels like India only”, my aunt said, massaging a cube of butter into her breadroll during breakfast. “Like South India. There’s no difference only”.

A better description I thought might be India-lite. For one thing, all of Cambodia was home to fewer people than just Delhi and its environs. Though it was true, Siem Reap did at any rate remind of Goa; here too, tourism seemed to have seeped into the town’s every feature. Shops and tuk-tuks routinely accepted US Dollars, and some even regarded dollars the only acceptable currency.

“We should get going”, I said, “Johnney will be waiting for us in the lobby.”  

The previous evening we’d dawdled down the tourist-brimming and justly named Pub Street—my jeans amid the tri-flutter of salwars—pausing for dinner at a restaurant specialising in Cambodian Barbecue, the decision to halt being firm and unilaterally mine. As I marvelled at the selection of meats on offer my aunt sought certain essential clarifications from the waiter.  

“We are pure, pure vegetarians. We are looking for something totally vegetarian. No meat and no stock-shock or anything.”

You hab no mee? Fee you hab?” came the baffled response. “No, no. No Meat, No Fish. We are Pure Vegetarian”.

We do for you. Can-can.

“But please, no meat stock. We want pure vegetarian. To-tallee pure.”

OK. OK. No probrem. We pu mirral votta.”  

Soon three bowls of steaming vegetable noodle soup placed beside a platter of raw chicken, shrimp, pork, shark and crocodile landed on our table. Additionally available were kangaroo, frog and snake, but seeing as my aunt said between meagre gulps and watery eyes, “Beta, I don’t know how you can put that… stuff in your mouth!” I thought it practical to refrain from further gastronomic misconduct.  

“Oh I hope the smell isn’t bothering you”, I tried, feebly apologetic, the aroma of smouldering meat issuing from the tables around us. My mother said she loved her portion of soup—“it is like Tom Kha!”—and my aunt reminded she’d long since lost her sense of smell.  

“Oh, ok Thank God!” I exhaled, continuing with my chopsticks to roast my bits of dinner.                        

         

           Johnney had been a guide for getting on six years. He flaunted a picture of his wife and son, which he said he kept all the time with him in his wallet. Da Khmer Empire”, he said seriously, craning his neck to face us, the 4 Indian subjects sitting in the car’s backseat, “wa biggit in whore South Eet Asia”.

The morning was bright and the air warm. A scent heavy with sodden leaves blew through the windows leaving behind a sweet trail. Clear of the thick-trunked trees edging the road, rice fields opened out for miles upon miles under the cloud-puffed skies.

We were on our way to the temple city, Angkor Thom.

Burma, Tailan, Veenam, all came under Khmers ad one taiym.” Johnney waved his hand to incorporate the countryside falling past.  

Though our guide was proud of his country, he was not exaggerating. At its peak the Hindu-Buddhist Khmer Empire had ruled over most of mainland South East Asia. Angkor (or city)—a vernacular form of the word nokor, whose origin lies in the Sanskrit word, nagar—is the supreme legacy of that period, satellite imaging having revealed it the largest pre-industrial urban centre of the world.

We reached a bridge leading up to an arched stone gate, one of many, to the Angkor Thom. Below, a moat encircled the 9 square kilometre sprawl of ruins; and on its bottle-green shore, not three feet away from us, barefooted kids leapt in and out of the water, cackling, snorting. Railings to either side wore the form of a rock-hewn naga, or serpent; while to the right side, a row of gods strenuously pulled on the length of its tail, on the left side demons tugged the reptilian stretch controlled by an upright and engorged head.

20141221_102341 The story went that Vishnu using his wiles positioned the demons on the fanged-end so that the gods would be kept safely distant from the venomous fire-jets spouted by Vasuki, the king of serpents–a sure side-effect of the bodily stresses he was to undergo. Accordingly, throughout the joint exercise of ocean churning, the demons’ hair and vitality scorched and singed, and were by the end of it all but shorn off, while the clouds driven downward to the snake’s tail by the breath of his mouth refreshed the gods with invigorating showers.  

The Angkor gate ahead was the pivot round which the churning had taken place. Though yet another interpretation suggested the pivot might actually be the city’s central temple, Bayon. For in the original story, as the gods and demons started to pull back and forth on the snake hugging Mount Meru—the centre of all physical and metaphysical universes and who’d taken on the role of the churning rod–they felt themselves being dragged to the ocean bed by the weight of the rapidly sinking mountain.

It was then that The Preserver of the universe, Lord Vishnu, came to their rescue; adopting the avatar of a Turtle he supported the mountain on his impregnable back.

Now be go buy tree day tikke” Johnney said to nobody in particular. “It e 30 dorra for 3 day. But unlidded endree!” The dutiful expression on his face hinted at the pleasure he took at this aspect of his job.

“Every bloody thing is charged in dollars here.” My mother rummaged in her bag. “It’s 64 rupees to a dollar. Thailand was much better that way”.

“Thailand is waaay more commercial than here”. Though Cambodia is fast catching up I reckoned.

We made our way past the immortally-strained boulders, and on through the gateway. I’d just entered what looked like a craggy and foliaged compound, and was waiting for the next cue from our guide when a concerned, vaguely out-of-breath-voice from far back chimed in,

“Johnney, bhai, can you please make sure that for lunch you give us clean, hygienic, pure vegetarian South Indian food.”

***

            At first glance the Khmer temple Bayon appeared a muddle of stacked up boulders, a wild sprouting of rubble that was withdrawing into the jungle. It was a structure barren of its function, but seemed also to have been robbed of its allure.

It was only when you lifted your gaze that the eyes came to rest on the temple’s majesty: the multitude of stone-faceted Buddha countenances, thick-lipped and thin eyed, each as placid as they were expressive, and every one haloed by a nimbus sky. It was remarkable: the way in which a face could bring focus to the beauty of an everyday thing that otherwise hangs behind ordinarily.

Lore said King Jayavarman VII built the Bayon in the late 12th or early 13th century as an exhibition of his own likeness; that is to say as Himself in the incarnation of Devraja or god-king, an avatar of the Buddha represented in the 216 faces etched on the temple’s towers. Though illuminations in such vein were consistent with the royal order of the day, as they can still sometimes occur today, where the king departed from custom was in adapting his persona to the Buddha rather than with Shiva.

(Following his death nevertheless, the temple was modified by succeeding rulers in keeping with each one’s persuasion, a number pulling towards chaste Buddhism, others tugging to the Khmer kingdom’s Hindu past.)

Incised on the hardened grey walls were hundreds of dancing apasaras, nymphs of the waters, such water naturally signifying the swelling ocean from which they’d arisen: the enticing portents to the elixir of life that was to finally surface.

Afterwards mother and I climbed up and then down some prohibitively steep stairs creeping up a tomb while the aunts relaxed on a couple of the masses of embellished stones studding the surrounding lawns below.

Descending, our ears caught a tempo of beats: a lilting cadence, chants and singing. A clapping of cymbals. And predictably, if unwittingly,  my mother melted into a stream in search of its fount, my legs wading behind.

A pulsating Buddha temple: white-robed female priests, their heads shaved, sat on the floor in concert with a huddle of kids enfolded in prayer. Some palms clasped, some held incense sticks, but all minds present called on the powers that be.

Except for the difference in the language employed—Pali, not Sanskrit— the god(s) invoked and inveigled, mother was at home. I could tell she was eager to join the energy, but alas she knew nothing of the tongue.

She decided to seek the advice of the astrologer sitting in the corner: a wizened face with wrinkled hands thumbing through a flaking papyrus scroll enshrouding a wad of promise. Unfortunately again for her the man spoke no English either.

Even so, he beckoned and I trod near.  Finger pointing at my right hand.

I extended my arm.

Benignly the old man tied a red string on my wrist as his lips quivered to formulate, “You gib me dorra?

                           

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PART II          

           The story began when the sage Durvasa Muni offered a garland to Indra, the leader of the Devas and the Lord of the heavens.

But Indra, wielder of the lightning thunderbolt, rider of the clouds, paid the guru’s prasad no heed. He tossed the garland on his elephant’s tusk. Who in turn stomped over it.

An infuriated Durvasa then imprecated a curse upon Indra. He and his entire god-troupe would be stripped of their powers.

Time unspooled. Unfeeling, predestined.

And slowly the gods saw themselves losing battles to their long-sworn foes. The point had now come where the control of the universe fell completely to the demons. Under the kingship of Bali, also a Vishnu devotee, the Asuras’ reign was absolute.  

“Then only, the gods went to Vishnu asking him for his help”, my mother declaimed with a flourish, leaving no doubt she was on first-name basis with all the characters in the story.

A rapt Johnney and panting aunts silently listened.  

Having scaled yet more stairs we stood under the spell of a bas-relief frieze depicting the Churning of the Ocean—92 Asuras and 88 Devas stationed on opposite ends wrenched the snake, Vasuki under the celestial guidance of Vishnu–on a terrace connected to a further multilevel maze of chambers.

20141221_135649 The building’s architecture was the union of two diagrams: the temple mountain and the later constructed concentric galleries. The temple itself, a representation of Mount Meru, home to the Devas, was surrounded by a moat and an outer wall. Three rectangular galleries, each raised above the next, were adorned by episode after episode taken from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, a series of vivid tableaus set into stone:  the Battle of Lanka in which Ram defeated Ravana; the Battle of Kurukshetra between the Pandavas and the Kauravas; and the 37 heavens and 32 hells of Hindu mythology, the latter engraved with excruciating precision: fires toasting a man alive, another being boiled, nails driven into a third…

The heavens, wafting with apsaras, remained out of immediate sight. Too high up to appreciate.  

Yet, somewhere above me a firefly torched. Blazing then in high reverse it swam and reveried.

I was a boy entombed in an epic. Only that now I was held not so much by the story’s telling as by its physical avatar; for this version needed no imagining. It was a phenomenon the fingers could touch, eyes could see, legs stand on; contained as I was in these halls circumambulating this Vishnu temple, built in the 12th century by King Suryavarman II, and that was also the world’s largest religious monument: the Angkor Wat.

“Vishnu then suggested the gods churn the ocean to bring out the magical nectar”, my mother was saying, “because only after having it could they regain their powers, but as the gods were now powerless they had no choice but to seek help from the demons to accomplish this huge task!”   Luckily, acquiring such help would not to prove difficult, it came rushing back, for the weak-willed demons would be easily lured by a share in the spoils, the chief amongst which of course was the ever-nourishing Amrit.

Plodding on, in a little while we arrived at what seemed the temple’s nucleus.

A melee of locals and Koreans and Chinese burbling forward; and before long in the thick of the swarm was my mother.

Everybody ­stepping up one by one, offering their prayers, or miming those of their neighbour; making wishes or simply inserting an incense stick in the receptacle of sand that stood at the idol’s feet.

I was back in the real world, a place with its own attractions; potions.

Some of the devotees saw in him the qualities of Vishnu; others heaped praise on what was certainly the Buddha; yet others still didn’t seem to mind who he was for both the Buddha and Vishnu were essentially similar, avatars of the other, the swayers of worlds, of truth.   

Perhaps it did not matter then that the deity before me, though wonderfully draped, was altogether missing his head.   

***

                     “This is the most insipid food I have ever had”, my aunt said, forcing down a (pure vegetarian) dosa she made clear was devoid whatsoever of any Amrit-supplying attributes. “Coconut curry, coconut curry, coconut curry, how much can a person eat it? Should we speak to the chef?”

Four Indians and a Cambodian were dining at a restaurant that served supposedly Indian dishes in addition to the South East Asian regulars. I was happy I got my desired choice, the signature Amok Trei: fish in coconut cream and galangal wrapped up in banana leaves and steamed. Divine.  

“No point”, I said. “He probably wouldn’t understand.” 

“But if they’re serving it, they should know how to make it na.” My aunt looked crestfallen.

Johnney was somewhere else. Through a mouthful of fish and rice he said to me, “I hab intreestin idea to deecas bid you. But lader.”

Meanwhile my mother enquired about the next day’s schedule. “Johnney, which temple do we go to tomorrow?”

No tempar”. We would visit Mount Kulen, a site that was well-known for the one thousand Shiva-lingams and yonis (not least a Vishnu) carved into the sandstone riverbed. The rivulet washing over them was sacred to Buddhists and Hindus alike.  

(This sounds like Cambodia’s very own Ganga river! my mother considered. Food abroad never tasted better.)  

***

                         The following morning we left Siem Reap and drove northwards to Mt. Kulen some 50 kilometres away.

 Rice fields carpeted out and ponds shone. From time to time materialized clusters of rural Khmer houses: wooden, gable-roofed and raised on stilts up to 3 metres above the ground, high flooding the reason for such a design. A boy chased an errant tyre as his siblings lay stretched out on hammocks that were bed-sheets strung up to house pillars.

From under roadside-shacks moms and pops sold coconut juice and wooden toys. Most conspicuous, villagers stirring pots of bubbling golden palm juice over mud-dried and wood-fired stoves.

Johnney was saying, “…. Chaam pippal are Hindu. Lai you. In Central Vienam dey all Hindu befo, and Thai peepal come from China.”  Immersed in their talks, none of the ladies were paying any attention to the free history lesson being dispensed.

Vietnamee peepal are ok lai tourist, but ben be talk politick then be don lai…… They stole land from Khmer Empire…Saigon used to be ours, Khmer!

“Have you been to Vietnam, Johnney?”

Neber!

My mother broke in, “Wow. You can see so many cows grazing out in the fields. They look just like our cows. You’re lucky, you must get a lot of fresh milk here”.  

No, be don’t hab our own mil, be hab to impo mil from Tailand”, Johnney replied with natural ease.  

“Really? So what do you do with all these cows then?”

Ah, be use for agrilchaa”. A pause.  “and for meat”.

A caramel-like smell overtook the senses, the heady drift of palm-sugar.

My mother took in a deep breath. She said, “If you kill the cow then you utilize the animal totally in one stroke. But if you rear it properly then you can use it for milk and for butter and for cow dung.  For its full life it will keep giving you….. Like a mother.”

Our guide giggled encouragingly no matter what his thoughts were.

“I don’t think they have a concept of dairy here”, I added, hoping to change the line of conversation.

A different female voice.  “Yes, and my stomach just can’t take tofu!”

“Let me talk bhai!” my mother said, intent on making a point. “In your famous ocean churning story also, one goddess who emerged was the wish-fulfilling cow, Kamdhenu. Did you know that Johnney?” Then, “I have decided. I’m going to open a gowshala—cow shelter–in Cambodia”.

“Oh wonderful,” I let slip from my lips. “Johnney, what do you say about that?”

***

                                    Mahendraparvata, “Mountain of Indra, the leader of the Devas”–once the name of Mount Kulen–was where Jayavarman II had himself declared Chakravartin or the model and universal king; an event Johnney said was regarded the founding of the Khmer Empire.      

Snaking up through the jungle-clad massif we came face to face with saffron-robed monks on pilgrimage and children weaving palm leaves into baskets and more droopy hammocks. Breastfeeding mothers. A cheery sausage vendor.  

A clutch of hut-temples relayed to a foamy cascade pouring through lychee trees.

Then all of a sudden gnarled roots thick as trunks tore out of the earth like grasping demons, the woods trembling, dark and dense in the back; and overhead knotted a sense of creeping anxiety: a sapling from some ancient seed of logic? A foreshadowing of what lay farther along?

We trudged up a dirt track winding alongside the Kbal Spean River–my mother, aunts, Johnney and I–until we were able to make out a few feet away, glistening wistfully, in a sunlit clearing at the base of the shallow stream: the valley of a thousand lingas. 20141223_112440 The hum of the river, a gust stimulating the surface. The tremulous Shiva-lingas, rock-hard and tenacious underneath.

I was a time-traveller whirling back. Once more inside the Churning of the Ocean, I remembered the first thing the sea expelled was not something life-giving, but rather the very opposite: a deadly poison by the name of Halahal; it was a poison so potent that both the gods and the demons grew terrified all of creation was at risk of being destroyed. Overwhelmed, they implored Shiva, the Lord of Destruction, to protect them.  Shiva forthwith appeared in answer to their calls and drank in the oceanic-toxin to the final drop. But he did so without himself swallowing any of it. So that it would go neither down to his stomach nor up to his mind he stilled the poison in his throat; and Shiva’s neck went blue, and thence he became known as Neelkantha or the blue-necked one.

My mother was down on her haunches. Uninhibited and unchangeable like the stream flowing below, she surged into sonorous paeans in Sanskrit as onlookers watched in amazement.

Om Namhah Shivay, Om Namah Shivay, Om Namah Shivay…….

Cameras pointed motherward; a scampering child froze in her tracks, bewildered or petrified; the aunts were returning to the car, hands thrown up; and Johnney continued staring, wonderstruck.   

I was buffeted by a wave of embarrassment, annoyance.

Minutes later, the circuit of mantras orbiting their last revolutions, my uneasiness was evolving to new concerns. “I really hope you don’t plan to drink this water.” A film of scum floated on the surface atop which long-legged insects danced and skated.

A mischievous shuffle of the pupils that served only to exasperate. “What do you think?”

Everything that came out of the Ocean following the Halahal poison was as miraculous as it was serviceable: Kamdhenu, the cow; the goddess of wealth, Laxmi; and the wish-fulfilling tree, Kalpavriksha. As had been agreed, all the treasures were shared equally between the gods and demons. Until when, finally came Dhanvantari, the divine doctor, carrying the kumbh (or pot) of Amrit along with a book of medicine called Ayurveda, and a fight erupted over the Amrit’s possession; and before any truce could be reached the stronger Asuras seized the pot all for themselves.

But yet again, and as always, Vishnu was there to save the day. Assuming the form of a bewitching maiden, Mohini, he used a feminine charm to trick the Asuras into giving him the Amrit. Fleeing the demons then, he gave the pot for safekeeping to his winged charioteer, Garuda, or perhaps as some say, to the sun and the moon. Soon, the enraged demons came maniacally chasing, and for 12 days and 12 nights a battle of wills raged between the demons and the gods. It was during this time that a few drops of the nectar of immortality fell at the Indian sites of Allahabad, Ujjain, Nasik, and Haridwar; and it is here every year devotees flock in hopes of cleansing and enriching their Karmas. The Mahakumbh Mela of 2013, one such recent megacongregation, was by several estimates the largest ever peaceful gathering of people in the world. Present in those bristling millions were my mother and myself; with one of us wholly partaking in, and the other mostly absorbing, the Holy Ganga rituals in all of their unabridged glory.

Vishnu then distributed the Amrit amongst the Devas. The life-force that had once deserted the gods commenced again to race through their veins. However a demon, Rahu, saw through the ruse; and taking on a god’s guise he attempted to drink some of the Amrit.  The sun and moon, clear-seeing as they are, recognised the intruder and quickly alerted Vishnu. Without delay then The Preserver set his spinning disc loose on Rahu’s neck. But this was not before it was too late. The demon had already taken a sip; and cleaving in two he was respawned by a stroke of fate: Rahu remained the head and Ketu became the headless body. And to this day Rahu and Ketu take revenge every now and again on the sun and the moon by devouring them. And to this day millions forgo food and water tainted by the shadows of solar and lunar eclipses.

Again futilely I pushed for affirmation. “This water isn’t safe to drink, is it Johnney?”

Ob course, I dreen. Be all dreen.”  Bending down Johnney took a draughtful of the liquid into the cup of his palms and gladly gulped it down.  

Hopeless. “I hope you realise how illogical you are being here”, I then burst out at my mother, “these stones were carved by some king hundreds of years ago. I don’t understand what you are trying to prove.”

“You’re all weaklings, you young people. This is a natural stream with healing qualities. The water can only be good for you….. and anyway, it’s much cleaner than the chemically treated polluted river water we get at home.”

The stream continued moving the length of its course, oblivious to the morass deepening beside it, faithful to nobody but its inner-current. My mother and I meandered back to the car, both steadfast and tugging to our positions, the blessed and snaking stream the physical and metaphysical distance between us, a bottle of holy water in tow.                        

       Later that evening I asked Johnney what it was he previously wanted to discuss.

He thought for a moment and then said, “You know, you and me, be lai brothers: Hindu and Buddhist. We same-same.

I was thinkeen to do bezness deel. You send tourit from India and I show dem aroun Cambodia’s Hindu temples.”

***

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Breaking Bad Roadtrip: Buddha’s Bodh Gaya; A Bihari Odyssey

Buddha’s Bodh Gaya by Dusk

We reached Bodh Gaya at about 6 in the evening that same day. The drive from Varanasi was about 3 to 4 hours and the roads were in a fairly good shape. As you move eastward from UP the surrounding greenery deepens and multiplies abundantly. 20140820_083217 20140820_083202 Bodh Gaya seemed like a small, largely underdeveloped town. Yet it is one where grand temples and monasteries built by the Burmese, Taiwanese, Japanese and the Thai among others are conspicuous and numerous. Tired and hungry, we fortified ourselves with a couple of coffees and sandwiches at the Barista Café nestled in the decrepit main market before heading towards the Mahabodhi Temple Complex. Dusk was giving way to night and farther ahead we could make out a soft light hallowing peepal trees. As we ambled near, the full picture came into view. DSC04659 DSC04661 DSC04670 The Mahabodhi temple complex, a UNESCO world heritage sight, is as religiously significant as it is ancient. As the UNESCO webpage states, it is one of the four holy sites related to the life of the Lord Buddha, and particularly to the attainment of Enlightenment. The first temple was built by Emperor Asoka in the 3rd century B.C., and the present temple dates from the 5th or 6th centuries. It is one of the earliest Buddhist temples built entirely in brick, still standing in India, from the late Gupta period.

The pyramidal structure of the main building, the detailed stone carvings on which were eclipsed at night-time, bore more than a passing resemblance to major Tamilian temples. The environs came visually alive at this hour with the uplit stupas that speckled the surrounding lawns. A riot of chirps interspersed the rustling of leaves. I walked down the pathway leading to the temple’s doorway.

As I entered I was instantly struck by the complete, almost meditative silence inside. It was a total contrast to my experience earlier in the day at the Kashi Shiv temple. On the floor of the outer chamber red-robed monks were sitting round chanting verses, fingers working through bead necklaces, faces both austere and beatific. A long queue of devotees–mostly Indian, but a few westerners too–inched forward to pay their respects to the golden, upright idol of the Buddha. The general atmosphere was similar to what I’d previously seen in Japanese and Thai temples. Calm, sober. Reverential. But as I was about to exit a curious sight caught my eye: a Hindu priest making banter with one of the praying Buddhist monks.

My interest piqued, I went up and asked,“Namaskar panditji, aap yahaan puja karte hain kya?” (Hello Panditji, do you pray here, too?)

“Yes, of course. Buddha is an avatar of Vishnu so we have to pray”, he replied.

“Sure, but I didn’t know priests actually performed Hindu rituals in this temple.”

The priest smiled. “You didn’t do a proper darshan then. Because if you’d go right back inside you’d notice that bang opposite the Buddha statue there is a Shiv Ling embedded in the ground”.

And so I did go back inside, and sure enough there it was- a Shiv Lingam set into the stone floor of the Mahabodhi temple. Under the direct gaze of the Buddha himself.

Intrigued, I then asked of him, “to aap yahaan abhishek karte hain shivling ka? Lekin sab pooja path ka saamagri kahaan se behta hai? Yeh shivling par bhi koi sajavat nahin dikh rahi hai.” (Do you do the shiv ling’s ritual bath and prayers then? From where does the water egress? I could see no room allowing for that. Nor did I see any religious decoration on the shivling.

“We do a pooja with milk, flowers, Ganges water and ghee everyday and after we’ve completed the ritual we wipe the shivling clean with a piece of cloth. This is Buddha’s temple after all. Shiv is here only in attendance.” He seemed pleased with his response.

I then walked round the back to the rear end of the structure. It is here that the ancient Bodhi peepal tree (under which Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment) is gloriously rooted, its branches splendidly spread out overhead. Monks and followers were sat in a posture of meditation. For some reason both Mr. White and I also felt compelled to sit there a few moments in uncharacteristic contemplation. Maybe the aura of the place is such? DSC04663 Later we had a dinner of cheese–really, paneer– momos at an eerily lit restaurant which also had Okonomiyaki scribbled on its menu.  We ate without complaining. Mostly.

A Bihari Odyssey

Coming from the India of smart phones, shopping malls and corporate offices as both Mr. White and I were, like many city-dwelling educated Indians we harboured our own misconceptions about Bihar, brief prior visits notwithstanding. It took traversing the breadth of the State by road, during which time, owing both to necessity and impulse we made occasional-though-not-short sojourns into dirt tracks cutting through off-beaten settlements, to disabuse us of our ideas, in the end rendering a much revised and positive picture of the place. Really, we agreed we could have been driving anywhere in UP or Haryana or MP and that our mental images had been informed more by mass brouhaha than the reality. The reality as perceived by its own residents that is, and not the urban, relatively privileged and judgmental kind. We continued eastward from Bodh Gaya, more or less alongside the course of Ganga as we had been doing previously through UP. Going by Begusarai and then turning duly north adhering the trajectory of NH31 on through Poornea we finally entered Bengal after which we went on to take the road leading upto Siliguri and Darjeeling. A couple of nights later we made our return by much the same way save that that time our port-for-rest was Patna, (a city which to tired Delhi guys at night-time resembles a Lajpat Nagar multiplied by Bhogal to the power of many Chandni Chowks and Sadar Bazaars). If I were to sum up my lasting impressions of Bihar in a word such would not be “squalid” or “decrepit” –although there were no doubt many areas like that- but “fertile” and “verdant” and “peopled” and “lived-in”. For the hinterland flanking the Ganga abounds in vegetation and crops, and so too in human settlements. In fact I do not recall having travelled through any other rural part of India which seemed so densely populated. Not even UP. 20140820_085730 20140820_105550 Random Impressions/Observations/Anecdotes

We passed by maize and rice fields that widened flatly and thickly under the syrupy stare of the August sun. One time we went through a particularly striking open-air bazaar of maize farmers squatting on the road tarmac, their florescent orange produce dispersed, green fields spreading behind them: a spectacle which was at once poignant and sublime. Far and near, villagers worked their land and shepherded their livestock: buffaloes, goats and sheep. Cows. Even on broad and empty stretches we had to be careful not to overspeed lest an errant animal, or herd, be grazing on the patchy-grassed strip running through the road’s middle. When, at times, the sky bloated grey our path quickly filled with excited kids waiting to release their stifled thumkas just as the first drops lashed the hot earth. When we rolled our windows down afterwards, the downpour having ceased, you could taste the scent of damp vegetation confecting on your tongue. During one segment around 150 kms east of Gaya, as far as you could see fields and villages were all but submerged in stagnant, 3 or 4 feet deep water so that the elevated highway we were driving on served as refuge to homeless residents; Tents had been put down and livestock freely roamed about. 20140820_113213 DSC04685 2014-04-01 11.01.18 Driving by the Gaya region I observed villagers doggedly chewing on datuns. For some, this cleansing ritual seemed to go on for hours on end. People could be seen working at it till well into the afternoon! Like in UP the more urban and semi-urbanised men had a liking for gumchas but what one saw most commonly in rustic locales was thick thread armlets strung on taut armed, bare-chested farmers. Whilst like their urban counterparts village men had no compunctions about peeing in public, they, unlike city-wallas, preferred easing themselves in the crouching position. A typical village had one or two motherly, sheltering trees adjoining the main road under which men gathered in gossip, to play cards, or just to drink chai. Women huddled together similarly, their kids and male relatives often squatting besides. One recurring and lovely scene was that of a line of three or more girls sitting behind each other on the front steps of a house meticulously braiding the hair of the one sat in front. As in UP, trooping school-uniformed boys and girls were a familiar sight. At one point I saw a couple of chatting girls, perhaps in their late teens, saunter down a gully; as they turned into the main road they casually yet carefully slipped their dupattas over their heads. 2014-04-01 11.00.12 20140823_125841 20140823_132453-1 At a rather protracted traffic jam a group of boys no more than 12 came round to our window selling a live pair of enormous, colourful ducks they’d caught in a pond nearby. A truck driver bought one for his dinner. Another time, on a crater-ridden track fit enough to be on the moon, we saw a middle aged man, whose legs below the knees were entirely missing, cavalierly crossing the road, his shoes stuck over his knee caps so as to make the truncated legs usable. He did not look like a beggar. A group of wizened farmers standing amid crops brandished a contraption hanging from a pole over the highway barricade. On approaching, we saw they were holding a chai-vending stand; piping hot chai-glasses had been lodged into net-sockets attached at the end of a pole. On our returning drive it fell dark long before we were able to reach our destination, Patna, leaving us little choice other than to carry on slowly in the dark. This was the only time in our journey I became slightly afraid; my concern arose not so much for our safety as due to the utter night. Except for our headlights the road was totally unlit, and to either side ran a dense, interminable segue of villages all of which housed thousands of loosely running children! It was sad if predictable to pass villages, along the main road no less, lacking in power supply. Our trail however was enlivened by droves of villagers tottering about flashlight-in-hand, as their other one jovially swung on the handle of a metal dabba (used to carry food, milk or water). Families spilled naturally onto charpoys and platforms in the open courtyards facing the road as members resumed their evening chores and chats, spirits not in the slightest dimmed by the faded light. In every such village the one place that unerringly projected some feature of illumination was the main temple. Later that night we got stuck in a 6 km long truck-jam between Begusarai and Patna. Seeing that the parallel road was empty, we cut out of the gridlock and began moving gingerly on the wrong side. In no time the cops pulled us over. Our put-on pleadings- “we are from Delhi, we didn’t know the rules, we thought that cars could go ahead….”– were sternly met and flatly rebuffed. “You educated people from Delhi should know better than to break traffic rules….all these village folk aren’t educated like you are”, (aapko to neeyam ka palan karna chahiye tha…) the cop admonished, before he let us pass, or rather break bad, all the way through……..

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Breaking Bad Roadtrip: Delhi to Darjeeling

Breaking Bad, my friend, Mr. White, and I undertook a cross country roadtrip by SUV. Starting in Delhi on August 18th we drove along the Gangetic plains through Varanasi and Bodh Gaya, rolling eventually into Darjeeling after briefly stopping over for the night at Siliguri. Returning via Patna & Varanasi we arrived in Delhi late on the evening of August 24th.

Along our 3400 kms long road journey we traversed innumerable towns and villages, rice fields and flooded plains, misty mountains and gleaming grasslands, not to mention countless herds of goats, cows, bulls, errant strays dogs, and a host of other fauna, flaura and peoples…. all in a span of exactly a week.

We had supposed we’d have an exhilarating excursion, and it proved to be just so in every way we rode.

This is a macro-chronicle of our drive through the breadth of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and North Bengal. Stops were made at Varanasi, Bodh Gaya, Siliguri, Darjeeling, Patna, and Varanasi again.

Part 1: Delhi to Varanasi (800 Kms): Uttar Pradesh, the Bhaiyya Belt.

My phone alarm rang sharply at 5 am but it needn’t have. I was awake waiting to be further stirred out of bed. Mr. White came by my house at 5.30. As the two of us sipped on our cups of morning chai my dad gave us a vigorous lecture on routes and road conditions. Google Maps was declared thoroughly unreliable, in hindsight not an inaccurate judgment in so far as Indian roads are concerned. All the same our groggy senses savoured the drink’s sweetness just as well as they sieved out some very concerned fatherly advice. He’d driven the same stretch back in the 70s and was convinced we’d veer off into Naxalite territory.

Charged up and refreshed, we were set to hit the road! But right before we embarked Mr. White, touchingly, presented me with a “Mr. White and Jesse poster” from Breaking Bad, a replica of which he’d also bought himself. It bounced along with us, sat in the backseat, for the entire duration of our journey. And since we had made it a point for my to always call him “Mr. White”, as for him to address me as “Jesse”, the poster remains a veritable Breaking Bad roadtrip reminder.

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Delhi, like many Indian cities, is as calm at dawn as it is manic during dusk. Instead of honks and swear words you hear an assortment of chirps and barks. In Lutyen’s Delhi, you can if you are lucky still spot a peacock or two. Being a late riser I also learned, much to my embarrassment, that the city is now home to not just a handful, but legions of breaking-dawn joggers in addition to a phalanx of avid cyclists. Not to be confused with those who use bicycles as a mode of transport.

We careened on through the city’s empty roads, crossed into Greater Noida, UP, by 6ish, and before it clocked 7 we were comfortably averaging 100 kms/h on the 165 kms long Yamuna expressway. It is India’s longest six-lane controlled-access expressway connecting Delhi with Agra. On either side of the dual-carriageway green fields stretched into the horizon, dotted by quiet smatterings of thatched roof huts. (It’s quite telling how they’ve managed to pave an expressway cutting through precisely nought major settlements. Certainly this is as much the result of calibrated engineering as of policy considering that the highway had been primarily constructed for use by Taj visitors.)

At a distance I could spot the odd farmer working his land, but seeing as there were no animals and no people to be seen it was apparent that the free-for-allness typical of Indian roads had been excised by the charge of a prohibitive price. Nor did we see any passengers perched atop the roofs of buses and trucks, (an all too common sight throughout the bulk and remainder of our trip). Well, almost none. It was as neat and developed a stretch as we were going to get.

And so southward and onward we zipped, passing signs pointing to roads ramifying off toward Aligarh and Mathura, until we eventually made our exit around Agra onto the older highway. By 9 am we were 200 kms down, and now chugging along on National Highway 2, also called the Delhi-Calcutta road and which constitutes a major portion of the ancient Grand Trunk Road linking East Bengal to Kabul.

Soon enough what with potholes, wandering ruminants and swerving trucks we were jolted back on course to fit in with the rattling cacophony that is so characteristic of highway driving in this country.

In the subsequent 7 to 8 hours continuing on down this road, we went initially through Firozabad via Etawah, bypassed Kanpur, stopping nearby only for a quick lunch of daal and paneer, after which we pressed on uninterrupted and untrammeled so that we could reach Varanasi before sunset. The toll-road linking Allahabad and Varanasi was nearly as good as the Yamuna expressway and we made it happily to the city’s outskirts by 5:30 pm.

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Impressions

Driving through Uttar Pradesh was both a roll by bucolic and lush pastures as much as a bumble through endearingly scruffy towns. It was a bright day and the recurring vistas of red, purple and yellow sarees glistening, tilling, sowing, in the agricultural expanse had a mellowing effect over us.

At a surface-level I discerned a kind of sameness with UP towns and villages (as well as in Bihar to a perceptible degree, as I would later see). Inasmuch as nearly every village is made up of unpainted red-brick homes and mud huts, cow-dung patties caked and drying on trembling walls, cows tethered in house yards, men and women tending their livestock or working fields, cavorting children, teenagers sauntering in school-uniforms. Girls on bicycles. Every village had at least one large temple, and in many if not most there was a mosque visible too. Sadly but unsurprisingly a large proportion had a scummy pond or an open-air garbage dump abutting their limits in which plastics, sewage and pigs smilingly mingled and rotted.

Everybody seemed to own a mobile phone. Even some village school kids.

The towns were for the most part congested, the buildings dilapidated and tightly packed. In every town’s skyline, at most three or four storeys high, fluttered a fair few number of religiously coloured flags. Triangular saffrons punctuated by lots of greens. An imposing mosque rested regally between shacky and rubbly structures in places like Akbarpur and Firozepur.

Ram, Narayan and Muhammad, and all their avatars figured abidingly in names of hamlets, nearly all of which were suffixed by the words “nagar”, “-pur”, “-ganj”, not least “abad”: Narayanabads, Rahimpurs and the like were so commonplace in fact that their charmingly secular enunciations registered only later in retrospect.

As urban settlements drew near English lettered hoardings and western dress styles grew prominent. Sarees relented to salwaar kameezes and occasionally to pants and jeans. Words like “fashion”, “style”, “shoe”, “centre”, “jeans”, “college” among a plethora of others were consistently written in the Devnagri script across billboards and shop-fronts.

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Whilst current fashions appear to dictate that young men on bikes don gamuchas round their necks and shades on their faces, many female cyclists, motorized and otherwise, have taken to shrouding their visage so utterly by a dupatta as to leave a tiny gap sufficient only for peering at the road on top which sunglasses are moreover placed. Not curiously, many girls also wear gloves coming up at their elbows. Like the dupatta-headgear this a type of self-styled protection against the dust but, most importantly, the sun.

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The Ritual Highs of Varanasi

If at all there’s a place that can be described as “quintessentially Indian”, or more moving and exhilarating, essential and elemental, than any other, then, to my mind, that place would have to be Varanasi. It is the only city I can think of that can make the rest of India seem passé. I love it. And this was my 7th or 8th visit.

After weaving our way through hordes of pedestrians and two-wheelers the pair of us reached our hotel, one named Buddha, at about 6.30 pm.

By 7:30ish we reached Dashashwamedh Ghat, the river-bank where the famous evening Ganga aarti is conducted and so named from the belief that it was here that Lord Brahma performed a yagya sacrificing ten horses. (Dasha-meaning ten, Ashwa-medh, meaning horse-sacrifice). Unfortunately the high river levels from recent rains had put the usual boat tours under suspension and we had to content ourselves with a feeble, if meaningless view from right at the back of the throngs, both human and bovine.

(Mr. White for some bizarre reason had decided to walk around Banaras wearing a black hat, thus attracting the unwanted cajolements of touts who might have presumed him to be a foreigner. “Where you from?” they persisted. Mr. White’s crass retort in Hindi rather than have them shut up prompted a fresh spurt of offers: “want to smoke?” “want bhang?”)

At 8 am the following morning I went by myself for darshan (sight/attendance) to the Kashi Vishwanath Shiv Temple. As I’d been before several times I had a fair idea of the inner layout, and a better estimate as to the unrelenting nature of Kashi pandits. Not that this came of much help considering that I got fleeced still, even if this time I was able, somewhat, to contain my losses by leaving my wallet in Mr. White’s keep. Not least by only carrying Rs. 1000 on me.

Not being an especially auspicious day for Shiv the crowds along the surrounding gullies were considerably and mercifully sparser than I remembered from my previous visits. I left my phone and chappals for safekeeping in one of the many lockers set into the walls of a paan shop a few yards away from the shrine. I then set off in the direction of the main gate. No sooner had I trod on a few steps than I was intercepted by 4 pandits keen to escort me through my prayers. Saying “no” firmly was unlikely to work beyond a point I saw, at least then thought, the prevalent mentality determining it a pandit’s job to collect his income from visiting devotees. So I submitted myself in the charge of one young one making it clear that I was only interested in the most basic of poojas.

The Kashi temple is one of the most significant ones dedicated to Shiv. It had been razed and then reconstructed several times, and the last destruction was by the Mughal Emperor Aurungzeb who’d raised the Gyanvapi mosque in its place. The mosque and the modern Kashi temple, constructed by Ahilya Bai Holkar in 1780, share a common wall to this day. Given so extremely sensitive a setting there is robust police presence on the temple’s periphery. You’re frisked a minimum of two to three times before being permitted entry into the inner sanctum in which the Jyotirlingam resides.

At first my guide tried to lead the way but this quickly proved pointless for within a matter of seconds I found myself floating adrift, getting squished, pushed, and then completely swept up in the heaving, sweating, and by now above all the loudly chanting “Har Har Mahadev” multitudes, the bhakts (devotees) of Bhole Baba. Being an organic part of what seemed like a reverberating sea of over a thousand people I trickled thickly into the dim, minuscule inner chamber- or sanctum- that safeguards the Kashi Shivling. You could smell flowers and incense sticks and ghee, but what most overpowered the senses was the impregnable compress of humanity.

Of the lot of assorted saamagri (stuffs for ritual)- Gangajal (Ganges water), bel patra (leaves), flowers, milk sweets, etc.- I had clenched onto, a chunk was casually filched by the nearest segment of the clamouring crush. Not that I really minded seeing as everybody’s prayers and praise would heap up in but one place. All those present knew they had no longer than a minute inside. And so like the rest, in a bid to get right to the forefront to get a glimpse and feel of the divine rock, I squeezed myself through and past the masses of flesh and cloth. I struck a brief pose of genuflection before the Shivling, did a pranaam and chanted known shloks. Beside me were about 15 people prostrate in profound veneration as several more herded around and over them.

Behind the Shivling the two head priests were riding high crescendos in Sanskrit verse, their tones intermittently faltering with anger or disapproval. As my forehead made contact with the lingam, masses of Gangajal, yoghurt and ghee cascaded onto my face, neck and back. The haze was penetrated by a splashy THUMP. Had someone slipped and broken their leg? It was only when I looked up that I realised that the sound had sprung from a slap I received on my back by the priest ahead of me. “Move along”, he signalled. The chanting and smacking continued with percussionist synchrony, and before I could verbalize a protest a marigold garland was tossed over my neck- a perfect bingo!, Ganga jal splashed on my face, a red tikka drawn on my forehead just as the rest of body was altogether shoved out the exit to my right by the next batch of in-pouring bhakts. Now standing in the bright and open courtyard I inhaled the fresh air.

Despite the unrestrained madness I enjoyed my darshan thoroughly. Intense though the experience is time and again there is a magic to Kashi that is peerless. It is raw and powerful and utterly absorbing.

I was next taken on a rapidfire pranaam-session round the various satellite shrines within the complex, all the while shelling out cash to each pujari at every god’s abode. Mostly only 10s and 20s. My personal pandit was nice if self-serving enough to supply me the small change required for this purpose. One pujari rather ingeniously demanded I pay him more than I did others as he’d taken the trouble to do a special prayer for me to be wed soonest!

At the end of the tour the young pandit brought me to the Gyan Vapi well situated between the temple and the mosque; Into which it is believed the head priest during Aurungzeb’s reign jumped, lingam-hugging, in his efforts to protect it from the demolishers. Standing there, the point from where one can clearly make out the arches of the older temple underneath the base of the now imposing mosque, the pandit said to me in a voice of unfeigned contempt, “and that’s where they say the namaz loudly every Friday”.

Overly ritualised, I now headed to an ashram ensconced within the city’s narrow streets to visit a Swamiji with whom my family has maintained an association for decades. In order to get to his Spartan quarters however I had to go through a dank alleyway which had bats clinging to the ceiling immediately overhead.

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A half-hour later I joined an immersed Mr. White at Dashahwamedh ghat, not so much in the river as in the fervent attempt at phone camera photography. Though it was not his intention to visit a single temple (as he’s an avowed atheist) he’d ended up going to one all the same.

He’d apparently run into the tout from the previous night. Persuaded into making a purchase, he’d trailed him into a warren of gullies that terminated at another Shiv temple inside which yet another resourceful priest had pressed some chlorophylled prasad into his blessed palm.

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